Why Bengal’s local trains are lifelines to the educated unemployed

Vendors sell their wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train. Photo: Ritwika Mitra 
Vendors sell their wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train. Photo: Ritwika Mitra 


  • Among people pushed out of formal jobs due to the pandemic, some are taking to selling goods on Bengal’s local trains, even if it is prohibited.

KOLKATA : Anand Jha, 28, has a clear memory of the day he launched himself as a railway hawker. He woke up at 3 am, swiftly made tea — a skill that he had honed while working at his father’s tea stall since the age of 10 — poured it into the new thermos flasks he had bought for 2,200, and headed to West Bengal’s Uttarpara railway station. At 3.40 am, he boarded the local train. Soon, the initial optimism wore off, and he returned home in slightly over an hour. “This is not something I can do. I quit," Anand remembers telling his mother.

Despite his family’s financial setbacks, Jha had completed a diploma in civil engineering and got a job at a company’s rainwater harvesting department in Haryana in 2018. He had worked hard to earn the reputation of being an exception in his neighbourhood, and he savoured the pride with which his father spoke about him. He wasn’t meant to sell tea on trains. But the pandemic truck a blow. The company that employed him shut shop in 2021. His steady salary of 22,000 came to a halt. He returned home in despair and a mounting credit card bill. Months of unemployment followed. “When I lost my job, I also had a home loan to repay. My credit card bill was over 51,000. I thought I would have enough money once the company settles my dues. But I did not imagine we would not be paid the entire promised amount," said Jha.

A vendor sellimg her wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train
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A vendor sellimg her wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train

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That first day as a hawker, on 18 February this year, his mother assured him his difficulties would not last forever. He ventured to the platform again—this time with one extra batch of lemon tea. “I realized there was a demand for it among commuters." Before noon, he had earned 600.

Jha is among thousands of people pushed into the informal sector during the pandemic after having lost their jobs and social security. During the second wave of the pandemic, at least 10 million people lost their jobs, according to the Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE). Data shows West Bengal saw an unemployment rate of 17.4 % in April and May 2020, when the state and the rest of India were under a stringent lockdown, as compared to 4.9 % and 6.9% in February and March, respectively. In May and June 2021, during the second wave of the pandemic, the unemployment rate in the state was 19.3% and 22.1 % respectively. While the state’s latest unemployment rate, according to CMIE data for September, 2022, is among the lowest at 3.3% , the figure hides the economic distress on the ground.

“The overall economy has been stagnating in West Bengal, particularly in terms of employment generation. There was some industrial growth till 2007-2008, mainly in small and micro enterprises. That has also diminished in the last decade. Large corporate investment has remained limited, and there has been industrial stagnation. The lack of a growth engine has meant that the overall employment situation is dire," said economist Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts.

Vendors sell their wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train
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Vendors sell their wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train

“I had so many questions for myself that morning while I was making tea. Should I get into hawking at all? And if I do it, how? While I was doing my engineering, I was the only one studying from the jhuggi. But I also realized there was no benefit in sitting idle. My mother told me people do odd jobs, and that I can quit hawking once I get interview calls," said Jha.

Currently, there are between 65,000 and 70,000 rail hawkers in West Bengal, according to Subhash Mukherjee, president, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), West Bengal. “There is an urgent need to legalise hawkers engaged in the railway sector," said Mukherjee. Since the pandemic, many people who had quit vending goods on trains have gone back to hawking due to the lack of employment opportunities. Siddhabrata Das, president of Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan, a union fighting for the rights of informal workers, said the number of people who now enquire about taking up hawking on trains has gone up —some of them include educated people like Jha.

However, the work itself is forbidden by law. The possibility of being fined and arrested by Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel makes Jha nervous every time he boards a train. His father who was a railway hawker since the age of 12 was forced to give up the trade in 2004 after repeated crackdowns by the RPF. “There were 22 cases against him. He has struggled a lot in his life." Jha, too, has been fined in the past.

Ravi Srivastava, director at the Delhi-based Centre for Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development, said the government’s policy of not authorizing railway vendors is exclusionary. “Railway hawking is getting more hazardous by the day where hawkers’ rights are getting pushed to the background. While some form of licensing is good for public safety, small-scale hawkers need to be given licences. Declining rights of hawkers shows there is a pattern of systemic assault on the informal sector," said Srivastava. With the licensing of on-delivery services such as delivery of food and beverages in long-distance trains, small-scale hawkers have been pushed to the fringes.

Ticket to livelihood

As the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train, which covers around 75km in over two hours reaches the bustling Dum Dum Cantonment station, there’s a flurry of hawkers in the women’s compartment. Passengers examine the earrings being sold, discuss what they bought for the festive season and ask for reassurance from the hawkers that the ghugni—a popular Bengali snack of yellow peas—is hot enough.

As the train nears Bhyabla, three stations away from its destination, over 30 hawkers have already gone about selling apples, children’s books, artificial jewellery, hair clips, bags, and traditional sweets. The smell of ghugni gets replaced with that of freshly brewed milk tea. Somnath, who is known by his name to the daily commuters, hands out biscuits, followed by tea to his customers. He almost admonishes one of them to not rush to pay him. “You will spill the hot tea and hurt yourself."

Srivastava pointed out that West Bengal has had a history of a significant number of people relying on hawking in local trains to earn their livelihood. “Many of us who have travelled on trains for decades have also enjoyed the variety of goods that hawkers have brought to us."

Describing the informal rules laid out among hawkers, Das of Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan said around 90 % of those engaged in hawking on trains have been around for a long time. “They respect each other’s domains—who will take which route when it comes to selling goods on trains."

While Jha is a new entrant into the informal sector, a large number of hawkers who have been around for decades are still grappling with the ripple effects of lockdowns, and suspension of local trains. Interviews conducted by Mint with over a dozen hawkers at stations, protest rallies and on the phone showed how they have suffered a sharp decline in incomes while also facing harassment from the RPF for being ‘unauthorised’.

Fifty-six-year-old Pushpa Mallick has been in the business for the past 20 years. Diagnosed with cancer around the lockdown in 2020 and with local trains not running for a while, she went out of work for over a year. While her husband’s health did not allow him to work, she found it difficult to financially rely on her two sons, who worked as labourers and barely had any income since the lockdowns.

With local trains suspended for a long period through the years of 2020 and 2021, small-scale hawkers are still grappling from the major economic shock suffered during that period, said Dhiraj Sengupta from civil rights group Association for Protection of Democratic Rights.

A vendor sellimg his wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train
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A vendor sellimg his wares on the Sealdah-Hasnabad local train

“The condition of railway hawkers would be significantly worse as these hawkers predominate on local trains and not as much on the long-distance trains. The people travelling on these trains now also have less income and lower purchasing power. This directly affects how much hawkers can sell and earn," said Ghosh.

A comparative study by non-profit ActionAid on workers’ incomes carried out in 23 states and five Union Territories in between lockdowns during the year of 2020 showed that despite workers returning to work, there continued to be large-scale unemployment, and more people were in debt during the unlock phase.

The gendered impact of the crisis cannot be ignored either. The United Nations had observed that the pandemic will globally push more women into poverty. By 2030, there would be 121 poor women for every 100 men, the UN said. More women were anyway concentrated in the informal sector even before the pandemic, pointed out nonprofit Oxfam’s The Inequality Virus report. Earlier this year, Mallick resumed selling goods on the train again. But soon, she realised her health was frail and business lean.

“From saris, I switched to selling bags. The profit was 20 on one sari, and I managed to earn between 200 and 250 a day. But after the lockdowns, nobody would buy saris on trains. So I thought bags would be a better option. But the profit per bag is 10, and the daily income is as low as 100," said Mallick.

Life on the margins

It is slightly past 1pm at Kolkata’s College Square area as hawkers prepare to agitate against their illegal status. Most of the hawkers agree business is not as usual. As the chorus for their rights to earn a dignified living is suddenly interrupted by the rain, they take refuge at the book stalls lining up both sides of the nodal road of College Street. Many of them have brought with them the fine slips, amounts ranging from 600 to 1,400, handed out to them by the RPF to testify to the everyday harassment that they face.

Samit Malakar, 40, a graduate from Calcutta University, who has been selling chips and peanut candies for the past 10 years, said this was a fight for their rights. “For some years, I gave tuitions, worked at NGOs and did other small-scale jobs. I started hawking as there was no other alternative left for me. But I have been fined and harassed by the RPF several times."

CITU’s Mukherjee said hawkers are demanding their right to earn an honest living. “From the very beginning, the demands have been the same — a demand for licences for hawkers, no relocation without rehabilitation, and social security measures for them."

Sixty-five-year-old Rabindranath Datta is somewhat bemused that he has never been fined in the past three decades that he has been selling lozenges on trains. “I have brought so many of my relatives into this trade — my son, brother, and nephew, among others. All of them have been fined, but not me." The hawkers are unanimous on the way ahead — the need for sustained agitation for the government to take note of their struggles.

Meanwhile, Jha has a message for those pursuing a diploma — to not get deterred by temporary setbacks. He does not want his story to be one of disappointment for other aspirants.

He has two job offers now — a Haryana-based company which had closed down during the pandemic and plans to reopen now has offered him the same salary that he was earning, and another firm in Odisha has offered a salary of 32,000. His parents are keen on him taking up either. After all, he studied and toiled for years to get there. But Jha says self-employment has its perks. These days, he sells water on trains. But whatever he decides has to wait for at least a month now. “For years, I have missed Durga Puja and Chhatth Puja. If I go, it will be after I celebrate these two festivals. I want to spend some time with my daughter."

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